Seeing the Art in Dada’s Quirkiness

Dada was an alternative rock trio that was active in the 90s and had on-again-off-again spotty career since then.  I have been following them though because they are a bit like King’s X, in that they combine clever songwriting and stupendous musicianship.  Their persona has more quirky, geeky, quasi-slacker type vibe, which I can appreciate if not entirely relate — that may be the only thing preventing me from considering among my all-time favorites along with King’s X.  They are both amazing, each in their own ways.

They reunited for the first time in years and toured this year, and I was able to catch their St. Paul show.  I was not disappointed.

Michael Gurley is an unsung guitar hero in my book, and a role model for me as a rock Stratocastor player (of which there are surprisingly few these days). Phil Leavitt is a powerhouse on drums, making the band sound huge despite being a three-piece (which is something only drums can do — drums basically make or break a band).  Not to be outdone, Joie Calio is quietly intense on his bass and has the most impressive pipes of the three.  I appreciated the band’s command of dynamics, going from quiet to loud to quiet again within a song (most bands just play at one volume – loud).

It was also heartening to see their interaction with each other and to the fans.  I speculate that the reason why their activities have been spotty is because they aren’t on the same page musically or personally any more, but if that’s the case I couldn’t see any signs of that during the gig.  Michael and Joie would both walk up to the center front of the stage during instrumental sections, standing side by side in solidarity, allowing fans closer look at their prowess on their instruments.  There were plenty of smiles and thank-yous, and a collective bow at the end.  One criticism I have of my other favorite trio King’s X is that they look somewhat wooden on stage with minimal interaction with each other, so from that perspective Dada was much closer to my idea of a great live band.  They played most songs with minimal deviation from the original, but did stretch out here and there, most notably on the extended “Ask the Dust” which included Michael quoting a couple of other songs during the instrumental break — there was a line from the Beatles “Eleanor Rigby” in there, for instance.

They didn’t play two of my favorite songs, “Time Is Your Friend” and “Information Undertow” both of which contain lyrics with prophetic level of wisdom.  Michael and Joie are clearly intelligent, insightful and resourceful men who can churn out real gems — so part of me feels bummed out to see that their quirkier staples like “Diz Knee Land” and “Bob the Drummer” get celebrated more.

But seeing them rock out with passion made me realize that my judgments were hasty and shallow.  Wisdom comes in all shapes and forms, and theirs happen to enjoy wrapping itself in ironic satires and eccentric fables.  Just because their words feature Hugh Hefner and drunken playthings don’t mean there aren’t hidden connections beneath to broader themes in life.  If you took the Beatles of “Norwegian Wood” and “I Am the Walrus” and make them rock with reckless abandon you’ll get Dada.  But they are not just being psychedelic for weirdness sake —  for lyrics and wisdom fanatics like myself there are plenty to read between the lines.

Which made me think about the blurry line between art and entertainment.  I define entertainment as a manipulative presentation to get your audience to engage.  I’m put off by most entertainment because by definition manipulation is about getting you to give when the manipulator himself doesn’t.  Where art differs from entertainment is that artists pour enough of their honest, authentic self into that presentation that the connection with the audience goes deeper than just paying attention.  It sounds corny but it reaches deeper into our hearts to bring out real emotions.  The words may feature the fluffiest of fluff but when delivered with the most unadulterated passion it becomes art.  Art doesn’t need to make sense or have any recognizable insights.  It just needs to reflect something deeply human.

So Dada taught me not only how to put on a mind-blowing rock show but also that stop judging their art by its silly-looking covers.  I love it when my entertainment leaves me feeling a little wiser afterward.  Or like a smart-ass.